AP FILE Photo
Mount Union head coach Larry Kehres yells from the sideline during a 2010 NCAA Division III semifinal game against Bethel in Alliance, Ohio.
The numbers are staggering, as if there must be a typo.
But there is none.
In 27 years as the head football coach at Mount Union, Larry Kehres’ Purple Raiders have played 358 games and won 331. They’ve lost 24, and tied three. His winning percentage of .929 is easily the best in college football history, and five of his losses have come in the NCAA’s Division III national championship game, a game his team has also won 10 times. All the appearances have come since 1993.
Tonight in Salem, Va., the Purple Raiders (14-0) will play for the title again, meeting St. Thomas of Minnesota (14-0). It will be Mount Union’s 15th title appearance in 17 years, and the Tommies’ first.
For Mount Union safety Nick Driskill, and 24 other seniors on the Purple Raiders, the game is much more than just another trip to Salem Stadium. It’s also their last chance to finally win a championship.
For three seasons in a row heading into this one, Driskill’s memory has been a long bus ride back to Alliance, Ohio, the Purple Raiders having been beaten by Wisconsin-Whitewater for the championship.
Since the Purple Raiders won their first title in 1993, no class at Mount Union has gone all four years without winning at least one national championship. Driskill’s class could be the first.
It’s why, he said, for all the awards he has won as an athlete and scholar, this game is the one that will determine whether he looks back on his college career in a positive light, or a negative one.
“This is why I came to Mount Union,” said Driskill, from Wabash, Ind. “It’s not just to play in national championships. It’s to win. As I look back on my career, whether I look back on it on a positive note or a negative note, personally for me, this is make-or-break. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Kehres knows his players feel like they are supposed to win, and likes it that way. The Purple Raiders, after all, have 21 unbeaten regular seasons in Kehres’ career, and have put together winning streaks of 54 and 55 games, which count as the two longest winning streaks in college football history.
“I think they feel that,” Kehres said of high expectations. “Call it pressure or (that) they’re trying to achieve their goal, which it to make it to the Stagg Bowl and to win the game. It’s a goal that they set, but they understand that there’s a process that you must go through to get there and I think they’ve paid their dues this year and they’ve done the work. They’ve kind of earned their way to this game.”
The success all points to Kehres, Jacksonville Jaguars receiver Cecil Shorts III said. Shorts arrived at Mount Union as a quarterback in 2007, switched to wide receiver full-time as a sophomore and finished his career with 63 career touchdown catches. He got his Division III national championship ring in 2008.
“He does a good job of adjusting to his players, so he’ll have the offense fit to what’s best for the players, what fits the personnel best and every year he does that,” Shorts said about Kehres.
It’s also a culture of winning that persists, Washington Redskins receiver Pierre Garcon said. Garcon transferred from Norwich University to Mount Union as a sophomore and was part of two national champion teams, and nearly a third.
“It’s the culture he creates, the atmosphere,” he said. “The whole school supports the football team and program, and helping the guys in any way needed, and the guys work hard, they believe in coach.”
This season, sophomore quarterback Kevin Burke said, is about getting the seniors their ring.
“It all starts with the seniors because last year didn’t end the way we wanted it to,” Burke said.
“Obviously we would have liked to have won a national championship, but it didn’t happen, so these seniors really are hungry and they really want to get this done. These guys have been the leaders out here all summer and really all year long, and I can’t see anything happening to not let that happen.”
Standing in the way is an up-and-comer in the Division III ranks. The Tommies have gotten closer in each of their five seasons under Glenn Caruso, and lost to Whitewater in the semifinals last season.
Caruso came to watch anyway.
“If that’s where we really want to be, I felt like I needed to see it and feel it,” he said.
During his stay in Salem, he had an opportunity to sit with Kehres for “an hour, maybe more,” in the hotel lobby on game day, talking football and life, a time he calls “an absolute blessing for me.”
Last year’s meeting between the Purple Raiders and Whitewater marked the seventh year in a row that those two teams met for the championship, and Caruso took something else away from the game, too.
“I was looking up at the scoreboard and, if you remember, they have the two helmets on each side, the Mount Union and the Whitewater helmet, and those helmets basically were plastered up there for seven years,” he said this week. “I’m just happy we’re the team that forced someone to get a new logo.”
Caruso even agreed that it’s special to get to face Kehres’ team.
Driskill, Burke and the Purple Raiders hope it’s not that special.
“The tradition here, it speaks for itself and people know exactly what you’re talking about when you talk about Mount Union football,” Burke, from Westlake, Ohio, said. “They know that you win here and that’s how things are done. People don’t expect anything less than winning and national championships.”
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